Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Veggie chips sprout in Hailey

Valley business produces World Beet and other flavors

Express Staff Writer

Sheila Plowman shows off some of her varieties of vegetable chips produced in the Wood River Valley. Photo by Willy Cook

    Three years ago, Hailey resident Sheila Plowman had just lost her job with the Youth Circle after-school program, which had closed due to lack of funding, and at age 49 was trying to figure out what to do with her life. Her friend Kaz Thea, who runs the Wood River Farmers Market, suggested she produce something to eat and sell it at the market. The idea was a natural fit for Plowman, who had long had an interest in kids and healthy food.
    “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make healthy snacks, earn a living and give money to local groups?’” she said.
    That idea has turned into It Takes a Village Foods, a business housed on Airport Way in Hailey that has grown to eight employees and a monthly production of 3,000 bags of dehydrated vegetable chips—a healthy alternative to corn and potato chips. This month, the company is donating 10 percent of its proceeds to the local Flourish Foundation, which sponsors the Compassionate Young Leaders Program.
    Plowman said she got the idea for her products when she saw kale chips for sale in health stores in California. She said she wondered, “If you can dry kale into chips, why not other vegetables?” Her company puts out four flavors of kale chips and three flavors of mixed vegetable chips.
    Plowman began selling her products in local supermarkets, and now ships to about 100 food stores in 16 states throughout the West.     
    She said sales have doubled over the past year.
    “We have some momentum going,” she said.
    At $7.99 per 2.75-ounce bag, the dehydrated chips are a lot more expensive than potato chips, and, Plowman acknowledges, also more than other kale chips. However, she said, consumers need to understand the product to appreciate the cost.
    The production process begins with washing and cutting vegetables, mixing them with seasonings, then drying them at temperatures that are a lot lower than baking or frying.
    “It’s virtually the same as eating raw kale,” Plowman said. “You get more nutrients than if you were eating cooked kale.”
    She said there are eight cups of fresh kale in every 2.75-ounce package of dried chips.
    “Dehydrated food is visually deceiving,” she said. “There’s really a lot more food there. It’s as if you were eating a big kale salad.”
    The company’s products are certified organic by the state of Idaho. Plowman said buying organic produce and the certification process add expense, but are especially important for her dehydrated product, which shrinks the weight of the original produce by 95 percent.
    “I don’t want to concentrate pesticides,” she said.
    She said she’s been trying to buy more produce locally, but is limited by what the climate here allows.
    Plowman said almost half her initial financing came from U.S. Small Business Administration loans, and the rest from personal contacts and her family’s savings.
    “You’ve got to ask for money a long time before you think you’ll need it,” she said. “It takes a long time to gather the information and really get it right.”
    Plowman said she loves what she’s doing now, calling it “super challenging,” She said that despite the fact that she has a master’s degree in business psychology and worked for a food-manufacturing business in California, most of what she’s been doing with her business has been new to her.
    “Anybody who’s starting a business had better be totally passionate about it and willing to put the rest of their life on hold for a while,” she said. “If I weren’t so passionate about the product, I wouldn’t be willing to do it.”
    She said that being based in Hailey rather than in a city creates extra shipping expenses for her raw ingredients, but she and her employees are being as creative as they can to make the business work here.
    Plowman grew up in the Wood River Valley and, like many of her school mates, left to pursue career opportunities elsewhere before being drawn back by the small-town, nature-oriented lifestyle. Now, she said, “Besides the fantasy of going away for a month or two when it’s cold, I don’t want to leave.”
    Plowman said about 20 percent of her retail stores have come to her seeking the product, but the rest take time to contact and sell to—time that’s hard to take away from the production side. But she still likes to get out occasionally and distribute samples of her product to consumers in supermarkets, and especially enjoys seeing a kid’s face light up in response to the taste of a snack that his or parents can approve of too.
    “When they love it, I think, ‘That’s why I’m doing this,’” she said.
Greg Moore:

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